The Russian Institute of Oriental Studies marks not only 200 years of its founding but makes a statement about a changed world
Some institutions are resilient and survive the ups and downs of fate. Others cannot sustain themselves and fall by the wayside. A great survivor is the Institute of Oriental Studies (IOS) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which commemorates the 200th anniversary of its founding this year. The bicentennial was recently celebrated in October in Moscow with a congress. The congress itself, where I was invited to speak, was a gala event — essentially a Russian affair with marginal input from Western scholars, which is what made it remarkable. In Pakistan, we are used to only hearing about and from Western academics about the region. It coincided with Russian’s tilt to the East in world affairs, a celebration of the Asian part of its Eurasian identity. President Vladmir Putin did not attend the congress but a message from him was read out at the inauguration. As much as anything, the gathering signalled the increasingly multi-polar nature of our world.
The IOS was founded in 1818, in Russia during the reign of Emperor Alexander I. It has gone through many vicissitudes through empire, wars, invasions, revolution and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was originally established in St. Petersburg as the Asian Museum under the Imperial Academy of Sciences, as a depository of oriental manuscripts and a library facilitating scientific research. In 1950, the institute was shifted to Moscow, becoming a major centre of oriental studies. Today its depositories house more than one million volumes of ancient books and manuscripts. In 2008, the St. Petersburg (later Leningrad) branch was reorganised into a separate Institute of Oriental Manuscripts. The institute in Moscow is a unique venue for the study of the problems in history and cultures of the Orient, especially the countries of Asia and North Africa. Hundreds of experts work there. Continue reading
Empress Market was not meant to be a museum.
Those of us who have seen Empress Market develop over the years into the vibrant heart of Saddar in Karachi wonder about its fate after the anti-encroachment drive of recent days. At the risk of repetition, it may be relevant to recall its glorious past. It is believed the British used this space to execute freedom fighters after the uprising of 1857, and that the ground on which it stands is hallowed by the blood of martyrs. Those who were not hanged or sent via Karachi port to Kala Pani, as the prison in the Andaman Islands was called, were tied to the mouths of cannons and blown to smithereens as a message to anybody who dared risk mutiny. However, legend has it that every morning the British found the massacre ground strewn with rose petals — the red of the petals signifying the blood of the freedom fighters. Fearing the space would become a permanent memorial to the martyrs, they decided to build a monument on the site dedicated to Queen Victoria, Empress of India. Empress Market was built as a market, a bazaar. It was not meant to be a museum or gala dining room. And it developed as a thriving bazaar in which items of daily use, including some exotic ones, were available under one roof.
It was a shoppers’ paradise visited by people from even distant neighbourhoods. Around it sprang up vegetable, fruit and tea markets, and the fabulous bird market where one could buy pigeons, parakeets, parrots and many rare birds. The shopkeepers were a multi-ethnic community, something to cherish and celebrate. Poor-friendly hawking also developed in the lanes and by-lanes around the market. Empress Market has great political significance for our country. It has been a meeting ground for countless political rallies and demonstrations. It was also the focal point from where the leaders and activists of the Movement for Restoration of Democracy against Ziaul Haq courted arrest in 1983. The eateries and cafés within and around it were frequented since Partition by young progressives, some of whom rose to political eminence. Continue reading